The negative impact gaming could have on people with autism

Aisling O'Rourke takes a closer look at what effect gaming has on those with autism

Computer games often bear the brunt of negative media coverage, particularly when it comes to violent shoot ‘em ups. Now concerns are being raised about their addictive nature, and the impact they can have in particular on people who live with autism.

It's reported that some companies are hiring in staff from gambling companies to encourage gamers to spend more time playing. It's estimated globally that every year up to six children out of every 1,000 will be diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder.

Professor Tony Attwood is a clinical psychologist who specialises in ASD, he spoke at the recent Sensational Kids conference in Dublin. He says computer games pose particular problems for people on the spectrum:  "In autism, the biggest challenge is social communication. But what concerns me is that the current gaming industry is actually recruiting people in the gambling industry to make the games addictive."

"And if you've got someone who’s not keen on socialising, or not very good at it, then the temptation to be in those games is almost irresistible."

It comes down to a unique characteristic of ASD and ADHD (also known as Attention Deficit Disorder) and that’s  - Areas of Interest. Children with these conditions are known to develop deep and committed interests in particular topics. So much so, that when a child is being assessed by medics, parents are often asked if their youngster obsesses over dinosaurs for example.

It’s something that support groups try to help those on the spectrum and their families to understand. Adam Harris, younger brother of Fine Gael TD Simon, has Aspergers Syndrome. He founded AsIam.ie an organisation “working to build an Ireland where every person with Autism can live and succeed as they are”.

For Adam his area of interest as a youngster was history: “As an 11 year old it was a challenge as not many 11 year olds are interested in history”. But Adam says “it did help me do very well in my leaving cert.” For a growing number of others though it’s gaming.

Positives

Campaigners in the sector are quick to point out the positives computer games can provide. Stephen Howell is Engagement Manager for Microsoft Ireland. Stephen has two children with ASD and ADHD Samuel (8) and Jack (12). An avid gamer he says he’s seen first hand the benefits gaming provides for his boys: “It’s opened up social avenues for them that would have otherwise been closed off.”

Stephen says for his boys it’s allowed them develop a bond with each other and their two sisters Charis and Molly, that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. “Samuel will obsess to a deep level about every little detail of a game, he looks up to his big brother and he’ll ask him questions about a particular game to find out more.” That might sound very simple, but in the Howell household, it’s significant. “Jack will respond and engage with Samuel because of their mutual interest in gaming, questions outside of it will generally get a point blank no from Jack, but he can’t help chatting about games.”

While Adam says games provide more of a structure for people with autism to engage with others:

“A lot of people with autism find it difficult to just, hang out, because there’s no structure, there’s a lot of grey area. Where as a special interest in games gives some with the condition a means to socialise.” Adam says this structure can help remove the social anxiety, which often causes huge problems for those with ASD.

However these areas of interest, computer games included, can cause problems in their own right. Adam says it can sometimes become a barrier, “people can find it difficult to understand” why the person can only talk about this one topic.  In some cases people with ASD and ADHD find it difficult to focus on anything else, in extreme cases personal hygiene and diet can suffer as a direct result.

Both Stephen and Adam agree, parents have a significant role to play in ensuring, that if computer games are something your child with autism is particularly interested in, the games they play are suitable.

Stephen says at this point in time you can’t medically be addicted to gaming, but there are still some things to keep an eye out for. He says parents should treat games as they would movies or tv shows:

“Make sure they’re suitable for your child’s mental age, look at the age rating on the box.” He says you don’t have to understand the ins and outs of gaming to know whether or not your youngster is able for it, “You wouldn’t allow a five year old play a shoot em up game for example.” In his house Stephen and his wife Aileen (also a gamer) have set up parental controls on their children’s devices, so they get daily logs of their activity and copies of any dialogue between them and other gamers online.

Adam says video games unlike some areas of special interest provide a “common interest” so he says they can be particularly helpful in allowing person with autism to socialise. And his says it can open up career opportunities, especially here in Ireland in the tech sector.

However Adam says he’d like to see large gaming companies engage more with those working in the Autism area. “We know that computer games can be addictive, so we should be working to ensure it doesn’t become dangerous.” He says corporations have an “ethical obligation to show appropriate care to their clients” and that any evidence that suggests it’s becoming a significant problem should be addressed.

Collaboration appears to be key here in order to prevent gaming becoming a serious issue for the autism community, but also to allow those on the spectrum exploit the positives games provide.

Anyone with concerns about your child’s use of gaming or computers is advised to contact your manufacturers helpdesk and follow their family or parental control protocols.  Further support can be found on www.asiam.ie and www.sensationalkids.ie.